A few weeks back, I made a comment on Pharyngula about the reasons that I finally lost complete respect for organized religion. The reasons seemed odd enough and entertaining enough to merit a post on their own: Legos and Peanuts. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds, as I’ll hopefully explain after the fold…
For the record, I was baptized Catholic (my mother’s family’s denomination), went to Catholic Sunday School as a child, but didn’t attend much church. I’ve gone on and off to my father’s family’s Orthodox church, but mainly for holidays to see the family.
My own beliefs have shifted over the years. On a grossly oversimplified sliding scale, with religious fundamentalism on the lower end and complete atheism on the higher end (agnosticism right in the middle), I started as a child somewhere on the ‘faith’ side, though nowhere near fundamentalism. My studies in science pushed me pretty much smack into the middle of the scale, where I was happy to remain until I started to see the excesses and hypocrisy of the ‘champions’ of the faith. Now I’m definitely on the atheistic side of the agnostic line, though I suspect I’ll always maintain an (admittedly irrational) opening for spirituality, which will keep me on at best an asymptotic track towards complete atheism. Ironically, one of the reasons I’ll probably keep some spirituality in my life is my parent’s refusal to strongly indoctrinate me.
Anyway, let’s get to my reasons for hating organized religion. I retained some shred of respect for organized religion for two reasons:
- I tended to believe that, despite its flaws, the goal of organized religion was well-intentioned.
- I tended to believe that extremely strong faith was not necessarily in conflict with rational thought.
I’ve had numerous arguments with people about the true goals of organized religion. Many friends of mine argued that it exists as little more than a means to control and oppress the people, while I’ve always felt (somewhat naively) that it had grown as a way to help and comfort people. I felt that way up until the point I happened across The Brick Testament, an ambitious project by the ‘Reverend’ Brendan Powell Smith which aims to recreate the stories of the Bible in Lego blocks. If you haven’t seen the site, it’s well worth a view, and is quite amusing. This example in particular, though, made my jaw drop, from Deuteronomy 29: 18-20:
18 If, after hearing this imprecation, anyone, blessing himself, should say in his heart, *I shall do well enough if I follow the dictates of my heart; much water drives away thirst,*
19 Yahweh will not pardon him. The wrath and jealousy of Yahweh will blaze against such a person; every curse written in this book will fall on him, and Yahweh will blot his name out under heaven.
20 Yahweh will single him out of all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in the book of this Law.
This is the translation from the New Jerusalem Bible; the wording is different in other translations, but the intent is rather clear: if you follow your own ‘heart’, instead of Yahweh’s rules, you will be burned. There are more charitable interpretations of this passage, but in essence here is the ‘control’ and ‘oppression’ that my friends had suggested was present. When I first read this in The Brick Testament, my immediate thought was, “Those motherfuckers!” (Referring to the authors of the text.) Thus one naive illusion about organized religion was shattered.
As far as strongly religious people go, there was always one who always stood out for me since childhood as a beacon of wisdom and moderation: Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. His wit was often, throughout his life, combined with select Biblical passages, including the famous passage Linus recited in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz himself was very active in his youth in the church. If he was a deeply religious man, perhaps religion was not completely corrupting. Then I found this article about him and his religious views: Charles Schulz was a secular humanist:
Though his philosophical views evolved over the years–”The term that best describes me now is ‘secular humanist,’” he explained–his characters continued to quote biblical passages, occasionally musing about the darker inconsistencies of religion.
In short, secular humanism rejects using the Bible and supernatural arguments to decide morality. Instead of being a moral and wise man because of his religious upbringing, he was such a man in spite of it.
I should have suspected this simply because of his writings. There are two strips that stand out for me, which I can only describe and not provide, due to copyright issues:
- Snoopy’s house had burned down. Lucy says to him, “You know why your house burned down? Because you sinned! That’s the way these things always work!” Snoopy’s response? “Bleah!” He then thinks to himself, “Her kind deserves to be ‘Bleah’ed.”
- At a summer Bible camp, Peppermint Patty is thrown into near hysterics by a preacher sermonizing about the “End of Days.” After a number of strips where she becomes more and more upset, there’s finally a confrontation between the preacher — and Linus. “Excuse me, sir,” he says, as the other children hastily excuse themselves, sensing the conflict to come, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”
So there you have it. Everything I’ve seen suggests organized religion acts as a tool to control people through fear, and I have yet to encounter a person whose morality seems truly inspired by religious faith. These observations have killed any interest in organized faith for me.
I should mention, in conclusion, that I’m critical of the organizations and their puppetmasters, not the faithful who are, like the rest of us, trying to understand the world around them as best they can. I attended my girlfriend’s family’s church for Christmas Eve, and the people were lively, friendly, and welcoming, exactly what you’d hope to find in a place of spirituality. On the other hand, the sermon included this ‘confession’ to be read by the people:
We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We bring with us our sins of thought, word, and deed, those things we have done and those we have left undone. We have loved this world more than Your kingdom. Although we deserve nothing but punishment, for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.
I was scowling at my girlfriend and pointedly not reading along at this point. What better way to control people than to beat them down with constant criticism and disdain?
Update: I should point out that my girlfriend doesn’t subscribe to the ‘confession’ quoted above, either. I was scowling at her because it was her family’s church…